Michael Agger takes readers' questions about e-mail addiction.

Michael Agger takes readers' questions about e-mail addiction.

Michael Agger takes readers' questions about e-mail addiction.

Real-time discussions with Slate writers.
May 4 2007 12:07 PM

Stop E-Mailing, Start Chatting

Michael Agger answers readers' questions about e-addiction.

Michael Agger was online at Washingtonpost.com on Thursday, May 3, to discuss " The E-Mail Addict: Stop using, start living." An unedited transcript of the chat follows.

Michael Agger: Hi everyone. Thanks for stopping by. Let's get started. . .

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Peoria, Ill.: Isn't it better than sex?

Michael Agger: I assume you mean: "Is e-mail better than sex?" A flippant question, but also one that cuts to the center of this discussion. Many people find e-mail deeply pleasurable. It provides these little tasks that you can accomplish one-by-one.

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Atlanta: I've been in numerous meetings where almost no one is paying attention to the speaker because they're all peering at their Treos/CrackBerries. What will it take for this to be discouraged as bad business practice, especially in front of clients?

Michael Agger: My suspicion is that while some people, like yourself, see BlackBerries as rude and disrespectful to the speaker, the people actually looking at their BlackBerries feel they are projecting an aura of "busyness," i.e. look at me multi-tasking. They may even think that prospective clients will be impressed by their diligence. Or maybe they are just rude. A couple of people have written to me, in response to the story, about BlackBerry use at funerals!

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Alexandria, Va.: I admit that both my fiance and I are e-mail and "CrackBerry" addicts. However, to a point, I think our jobs perpetuate this problem. When we are expected to be available at the drop of a hat, 24/7, what are we supposed to do? I should mention that neither one of us are high-level officials, nor do we deal with issues of national security or public safety -- we're both just midlevel government people. We are going on our honeymoon this October to Europe and I constantly am being reminded by my boss that my BlackBerry will work in Europe (I'm not taking it with me, even if it costs me my job). How do you deal with a situation like this, where you're a forced e-mail addict?

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Michael Agger: I really, really feel for you. You are essentially on the front lines of the e-mail problem, as you work for a boss who demands that you always available. What can you do, short of quitting your job? Marsh Egan, the woman I profiled in the article, talks a lot about "toxic e-mail cultures" at work. Change needs to come from the top. I wish there were an easy answer. You might try the argument that you will be a much more productive and creative employee if you get some time away (c'mon it's your honeymoon!) from the BlackBerry. That argument also has the advantage of being true.

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Boston: Now that I have admitted that I am powerless over my e-mail addiction, how can I get out of it and regain some semblance of control over my non-connected life?

Michael Agger: The life coaches seem to agree that it takes 21 to 28 days to change a habit. So, start now. Commit to a schedule of checking your e-mail at 10 a.m., 2 p.m., and 4 p.m. (or something). Turning off automatic send/receive is also crucial. The fundamental idea is taking ownership of e-mail -- not being reactive.

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Los Angeles: Michael -- my wife and I often sit at night with our laptops open (and usually the TV on too). It seems a little unhealthy. We talk a lot, but I fear we're both addicted to e-mail/Web surfing/laptops. Is this common? We both need our computers at home, but do you have any suggestions of ways to cut back? Thanks.

Michael Agger: I often do the same thing at night. That mindless surfing at the end of the day with the TV on can be enjoyable and relaxing. If it's bothering you though, maybe try something else. Lately I've been reading long books. It's a nice way to wind down.

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Arlington, Va.: Why do people insist on labeling any behavior they personally don't understand an "addiction"? Addiction is a chemical dependency, not just behavior someone enjoys and someone else disapproves of. So what if some people like to stay connected to the world at large so much that they check their e-mail more frequently than some other people like? Why is it anybody else's business?

Michael Agger: Good question. Classic "addiction" is certainly what you describe, but I think there is a new category of so-called "soft addictions" that e-mail falls into. And, if people like to check e-mail all the time, that's fine. On a personal level, some people feel like there e-mail checking is out of control, that they are "addicted." On a company level, people are starting to question if constant e-mail is counterproductive.

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Somerville, Mass: To producer: Please post a link to the article that Michael is discussing. Thanks!

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washingtonpost.com: Apologies -- The E-Mail Addict: Stop Using, Start Living(Slate, May 3)

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The Hague, Netherlands: Talking about non-business affairs: Don't you think e-mail writing strips away richness of real human contact? I mean, one can be a really amazing and interesting person through emails, but personal contact should be sought from the beginning in order to avoid false expectations.

Michael Agger: I certainly do. Because we use e-mail all the time, it's easy to forget what a crude method of communication it is (emoticons, please). For example, just try to be sarcastic next time you send someone a note. On the other hand, e-mail seems to me a great way to maintain long-distance connection with someone you have already met face to face.

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Middletown, N.Y.: I presently am unemployed ... I am so bad that I click the send/receive button about 10 times, machine gun-style, when checking ... I even light up when I see spam ... man, this is getting bad.

Michael Agger: Good luck finding a job. Your e-mail dilemma is shared by many. E-mail is this amazing portal through which opportunity can come through at any moment. That's part of the reason why we want to check it all the time. It's like playing the lottery: maybe that life-changing e-mail will be there!

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Washington: How closely related is BlackBerry addiction to other addictions, like alcoholism? I ask this because, even though I know it's wrong, impolite and possibly dangerous, I can't seem to stop reading and responding to e-mails -- even while driving!

Michael Agger: It's amazing how many people BlackBerry while driving. Some people even brag about this skill. Please stop! To answer your first question, I don't really know. What's interesting to me is that people who walk the edge of addictive behaviors, such as professional gamblers, often recognize the addictive power of e-mail and cut it out of their lives.

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Alexandria, Va.: Hi and thanks for taking my question. Do you think the constant e-mail-checking today is based on hectic or pressing work demands, or mainly personal and fun stuff? (Admission: I do find myself checking all of my accounts constantly -- work and personal!) And do you know of a 12-step program for us compulsive e-mail-checkers?

Michael Agger: The constant e-mail checking is due to both work and personal demands. We conduct our entire lives over e-mail, it's an embedded technology. Marsha Egan has a 12-step program, but it will cost you $36. I am a really big fan of the lifehacker site 43 Folders. Check out the series of posts on "Inbox Zero." Excellent stuff.

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CrackBerry on a honeymoon?: To the woman who's boss keeps telling her that her BlackBerry works in London: Do what I did -- I'm a one-woman department but knew that my job was not essential enough for my co-workers or boss to call me. However, they'd called during vacations before, so when it got close to my wedding date I told one of the VPs and my boss (the President of the organization) that if I got one phone call while on my honeymoon, I was quitting. My only caveat was they could call me if someone died (morbid, I know). Luckily I was well-liked and respected enough that they didn't want to lose me.

Michael Agger: Just passing along that advice.

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Boston: I'm not just an e-mail addict, I'm an information addict. I've got to check the news, editorials on sports and current events, arguments I've joined on political blogs, movie reviews, etc. etc. etc. Obviously my job needs the Internet to succeed, but there are days when my work is torn apart by excitement in a totally unrelated Internet phenomenon (such as submitting a question here). How do I stop, and (more importantly) how do I convince myself that this is worth stopping?

Michael Agger: Another tough question. One of the problems with constantly checking e-mail is that now e-mail often leads you the Web. So, what started out as quick e-mail check becomes a two-hour detour into Flickr. So, perhaps you should start with limiting e-mail, where I assume you get a lot of news alerts, etc.

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Miami: Hi Michael. I'm currently dating a woman with a heavy e-mail addiction and it's driving me nuts. She can easily justify her need to check her blackberry every 2-3 minutes because she's both a single mom (arranging kid activities) and a real estate agent (business leads). But she has become so conditioned to checking e-mail that she's unaware she's doing it (all her waking hours) and that it has a disruptive impact on our relationship. Any advice for us CrackBerry victims?

Michael Agger: There's a hotel in Chicago that will lock your BlackBerry in a safe during your stay. Maybe try that?

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U.S.: Addiction can also be described as something interfering in your productive life (your contributing-member-of-society life) causing or enabling you to ignore your significant other, children, job, problems, etc. So if one is mindlessly and obsessively checking e-mail at any time, it is taking away from something -- even if it's just an opportunity to be silent and listen to your inner-self.

Michael Agger: Great point. For many, e-mail fills up the holes in the day. Instead of taking a moment to reflect on larger goals or what we really need to get done, we just dive back into the Inbox and fire away. Tom Hodgkinson, the editor of the great British journal The Idler, recently gave up e-mail for the very reason that it ruined thoughtful moments.

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The other side of the coin: Thought it'd be interesting to provide a different perspective ... as a high school teacher who has taught in private, public and charter schools in the area, I'm still dumbfounded by how schools have only one phone line for all the teachers in the school to share, never mind e-mail access, BlackBerries or the like. I don't see why I should give out my home number or pay for home Internet access just to satisfy the school's needs. Also, it's unbelievable to me that people often don't understand situations such as the above. Just because you have 24/7 e-mail doesn't mean the other person does too. Sometimes, you need to pick up the phone, send a letter, etc. E-mail is not instant messaging, at least for us less-wired folks.

Michael Agger: Another good point. E-mail addiction tends to afflict those of us who work in front of a screen all day, while there are plenty of people who do not. What's interesting about teaching is that parents now expect e-mail access to teachers, and also a prompt reply. Some schools have set policies that teachers have two or three days to reply to any parent e-mail. That seems very sane, and also provides a chance to craft a thoughtful response.

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Dayton, Ohio: I see a big part of it as infantilizing and avoiding responsibility. Because it's so easy to blast out messages, nobody will commit to making a decision without getting the opinions of a half-dozen other people.

Michael Agger: Hiding behind e-mail is very easy to do. It's a perfect technology for the passive/aggressive in all of us.

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McLean, Va.: Can you e-mail me a summary of the discussion? I've got some e-mails to respond to during the allotted discussion time and can't make it. Thanks!

Michael Agger: I assume you scheduled this "e-mail time" this morning and are answering all of your outstanding messages in one batch? You are one of the proud, the few enlightened e-mailers.

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Takoma Park, Md.: I used to smoke. I hated standing alone or waiting to meet someone; with a cigarette, I was never alone. Smoking gave me an appearance of purpose. Now I no longer smoke, but I definitely pull out the CrackBerry at those same moments of isolation or boredom. However, I'm not so addicted as other respondents. I rarely look at it at home, in restaurants, museums, etc.

Michael Agger: That's an interesting connection between smoking and Blackberries. Just like smoking, some people say that they find women or men who use BlackBerries more attractive.

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Hollywood, Calif.: I work as a corporate trainer at a major studio and you'd be surprised (or not) at how many people bring their gadgets and read and write throughout training classes. Aside from being incredibly rude to the speaker, I cannot believe that they are not missing out on some key info -- which they will no doubt be calling about later. Can people really not sit for an hour without checking messages? Sad.

Michael Agger: Don't you think that this is status-driven behavior? No one can be seen as so unimportant that they can't check their messages for an entire hour! Imagine the loss of face! What if Peter Jackson e-mails? Seriously, though, I agree that this is rude. You should ask them to check the devices at the door.

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Charlottesville, Va.: If we only check our e-mail a few times a day instead of constantly, are we allowed to/should we be available via instant messaging, which is common among students (like myself) and becoming increasingly popular in the workplace? Wouldn't this be trading one evil for another? What about those of us who need to be accessible at all times during the day?

Michael Agger: Instant messaging is also part of the problem, as you can imagine. It seems to be useful for sub rosa conversations, such as exchanging ideas during a conference call, but in general it's another huge distraction. There is this wonderful device that provides instant communication in high-fidelity, and it's already installed in most offices: the telephone.

IM in the workplace is still evolving though, and can be useful. There was a recent article about how people in L.A. were finding work based upon whether they marked their Status as "Available" or "On a Project."

The way things are going, it seems that most of us will have to commit to some ongoing, permanent online representation of ourselves. Instead of leaving work, we will indicate that we are "Offline: Not Responding." Kind of a scary thought, though.

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Arlington, Va.: My work is developing novel electronics that may end up in consumer communication and/or imaging devices. I don't even own a cell phone -- I get enough of that stuff at work. You might say I am one of the drug dealers and you guys are the addicts. It will rot your brain, I'm telling you. Get out there and talk (with your vocal cords) with other real people, pet a real dog, have real sex for Pete's sake -- or risk becoming less than human.

Michael Agger: Cogent advice from someone inside the machine.

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Michael Agger: Thanks for all of your questions. Good luck conquering your e-mail. Time to walk outside and get a late lunch.